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How to Buy a Handgun in California

California has placed many hurdles in the way of our basic, fundamental right to purchase a firearm. Here are the most important things to know when buying a pistol in the not-so-Golden State.

How to Buy a Handgun in California

(Alfredo Rico photo and Vladimir Molnar / Shutterstock photo)

If you are new to California’s firearms laws and walk into a gun shop expecting to leave with the latest and greatest pistol, expect to be disappointed. None of the new semi-automatic handguns that you have recently read about are on the shelf. You may think there was a buying frenzy on new handguns and only older models remain, but you can curse California’s Unsafe Handgun Act for this. The slim pickings is not the only hurdle you will have to overcome; purchasing a firearm is not as straightforward or as easy as the media makes you think. This article gives you an overview of handgun laws and the requirements to purchase one so that when you are ready, you will be well prepared.

California Safe Handling Demonstration Affidavit
(Alfredo Rico photo)

Unsafe Handgun Act

The Unsafe Handgun Act (UHA) became effective January 1, 2001, and deems handguns unsafe unless they have been tested safe by a California Department-of-Justice-approved laboratory. The law applies to any pistol, revolver, or other firearm capable of being concealed upon the person.

If the handguns pass the test and are certified, they could make it onto the Roster of Certified Handguns and can be sold in California by firearms dealers. The roster is available at

Initially, the UHA only included testing of the mechanical operation of a firearm and required certain safety features. For example, a revolver’s firing pin could not rest on the primer. Since then, anti-gun legislators have increased the size of the “unsafe” umbrella and added more restrictions. As of 2007, semi-automatic handguns must now include a loaded chamber indicator and a magazine disconnect mechanism. Since California is a huge market, and the requirements were technically possible, many manufacturers included these features.

California Required Firearm Safety Features
(Alfredo Rico photo)

Law AB 1471 put a de facto ban on new firearms models being sold in California. Called the microstamping law, it was signed into law in 2007 by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The law didn’t take effect until 2013 when the microstamping patent expired allowing other companies to use it.

The microstamping law requires any new semi-automatic pistol models sold in California to stamp the cartridge in two places with the gun make, model, and serial number. Microstamping is wrought with many technical and legal issues making it impossible for firearms manufacturers to consider the technology. To date, no firearms have this feature, hence why we are stuck with handgun pre-2014 models.

Magazine Capacity

As the years pass, handgun models become discontinued or are inexplicably dropped from the roster, thereby shrinking the list.

California Magazine Capacity Restrictions
(Alfredo Rico photo)

So now that you understand, how perilous our Second Amendment rights have become, let’s address magazine limitations. California Penal Code 32310(c) makes it a crime for a person to possess a “large capacity” magazine, regardless of the date it was acquired. A “large-capacity magazine” means any ammunition-feeding device with the capacity to hold more than 10 rounds. In 2020, the ban was temporarily struck down, then it was upheld November 30, 2021, by the Ninth Circuit. As of June of 2022, by a new order from the Supreme Court, the 9th Circuit is required to revisit that decision. For now, expect gun shops to err on the side of caution and supply a 10-round magazine.


In most states, silencers are legal to own but require special paperwork and a tax stamp. California gets its silencer education from the movies and has made them a felony to possess, so don’t even think about adding that to your handgun; even a threaded barrel on a semi-automatic handgun is illegal.

Additional Requirements

Anti-gun city mayors have begun proposing and winning more firearms restrictions. For example, the city of San Jose requires gun-owning residents to have firearms insurance. Check your local city laws for additional restrictions.


Active-duty police officers and some military personnel may buy handguns that are off roster and available in other states. They can also possess the standard capacity magazines. This is why you’ll see a dedicated display labeled “LEO only” at a gun shop.

California Firearm Purchasing Paperwork
(Alfredo Rico photo)


Firearms Transaction

Every firearm purchase and transfer must be made through a California firearms dealer. This applies gun shows, online sales, or private party transfers.


Who can purchase a firearm?

The minimum age to purchase a handgun is 21 years, and you can be a U.S. citizen or simply a resident.

ID and Proof of Residency

When you are ready to buy, go prepared with a current ID and proof of residence documents or you will get frustrated at the sales clerk. It’s not their fault, they are following the law.

A proof of identity and age is required via a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued ID. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must provide documentation containing your Alien Registration number. Proof of residency is required via a utility bill, residential lease, or government ID other than a driver’s license or DMV-issued ID. The proof of residency document must have the same address as your ID.  A Firearms Safety Certificate or Handgun Safety Certificate is also required. To obtain this certificate you have to pass a firearm handling and safety test. The test can be found and taken at any gun shop.

California ID Requirements
(Alfredo Rico photo)

About IDs

Concerning firearms, there are two types of IDs issued in California. One is a REAL ID and the other says “Federal Limits Apply” in the upper right corner. A REAL ID requires extra documentation to obtain but it is worth it because it is a federally accepted form of identification. REAL ID is sufficient proof of identity and age to buy a firearm or ammo. An ID marked Federal Limits Apply means it’s an insufficient ID to buy ammo or a firearm, you’ll need to take additional documentation, like a passport, birth certificate, or permanent resident card.

Who Can’t Purchase a Firearm?

There are laws prohibiting some people from owning firearms like persons convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors, or if you have been detained for being 5150. More details can be found in Penal Code 26840 PC.

Quantity Restrictions

All handguns require a 30-day waiting period and only one can be registered at a time. If you buy two handguns at the same time, that equals two 30-day waiting periods. The sales clerk will have you fill out the paperwork for one firearm only.


There are three documents you must fill out and sign. One is the federal document, the Firearms Transaction Record, which has the details about the firearm you are buying and your personal information for a background check. It includes questions on whether you have a criminal background or are addicted to marijuana or other drugs or controlled substances. The other two forms that are unique to California: One is the Safe Handling Demonstration Affidavit, which says the dealer showed you how to safely load and unload the firearm; The other is Affidavit Stating Ownership of a Gun Safe or Lock Box. Here you affirm that you have an acceptable gun safe or lock box for the firearm that meets regulatory standards established by the California DOJ.


As though we haven’t given up enough ground, in 2019, California became the first state in the nation to require point-of-sale background check to buy ammunition. This means that unless you have a special license, you must purchase ammunition through a gun shop where they run a federal background check that is similar to a firearms background check, except with less paperwork. The dealers are required to maintain a database of ammunition sales.

If you buy ammo online, you must provide the vendor a copy of your dealer’s Federal Firearm License and have it shipped to their establishment. Gone are the days you had it shipped to your home. Expect to pay DROS fee, usually $1, and a transfer fee that is determined by the gun shop that you are picking it up. Transfer fees may range from $10 to $20.

California Out-of-State Firearm Purchases
(Alfredo Rico photo)

Buying from Out of State

If you found the perfect handgun online from an out-of-state dealer, California laws still apply. You are limited to what’s available on the roster along with the magazine restrictions and the transfer must happen via a dealer. In addition to the DROS fees, you’ll have to pay a transfer fee that are individually set by the dealer. Transfer fees may range from $75 to $150.

When buying from out of state, be aware that the vendor must include a California Firearms Shipment Approval letter. The gun shop can’t start your paperwork without this letter. According to Kassandra Fowler, 29 Outdoor Gear’s Firearms Compliance Officer, one of the biggest headaches of receiving a firearm that a customer has bought elsewhere is that the vendor forgets to include this letter. The letter is easy to get at, so be a good customer to your local gun shop and let the vendor know this letter must accompany the firearm.

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